When the government pressed the button to “reform” the country’s media laws last month, could it have imagined that the most significant result would be to hand ownership of vast slices of the Australian media to faceless foreign private equity investors?

Well that’s exactly what has happened. Australia’s two biggest TV networks and most of its major magazines are now half-owned by money-hungry foreign private equity groups, and within months more large stables of newspapers and radio stations are likely to be added to the private equity stockpile.

Is that what Communications Minister Helen Coonan had in mind when she predicted the new laws would create “opportunities for new players and new services”? And if it’s not what the government had expected when it rammed through the legislation, how will this seminal shift of media ownership affect the calibre of the Australian media and justify the highly contentious decision to overhaul the media industry when it didn’t need overhauling?

In a word, it will make our media even more commercial. Or to use another word from the private equity book of jargon, the new shareholders will ensure their media assets can be flipped at a great profit in a few years’ time (which is, after all, what their game is about).

What this will mean for the businesses they have bought at huge prices in declining industries – television, magazines and potentially newspapers – is almost certainly a continuous grind of cost-cutting, rationalisation, caution, discipline, process, routine. Expensive quality content and serious journalism will sit precariously within this environment, especially if the advertising revenues continue their inexorable drift towards the internet.

The old-style family media proprietors may have been flawed, but at least they cared about the media and not just about the flip.

Peter Fray

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